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Very different hazards but often similar issues for community preparation and recovery

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Dr Alison Cottrell, from James Cook University's Centre for Disaster Studies, looks at some similarities between different natural disasters in Australia and how people cope.    
The Centre for Disaster Studies conducts research on a wide range of hazards and disasters including flooding, cyclones, bushfires and the impact of the tsunami in south-east Asia.
One major similarity is the land use planning issues that arise from all these disasters. Often hazards have not been taken into account when a particular area is developed as, for example with the historical development of established cities and towns.

While new developments are not subject to these restrictions, being armed with information of possible hazards does not necessarily mean that development will consider the risks and take mitigating action. It has been shown, for instance, that people who live in stilt houses (Queenslander style) and who don't fill in the area at ground level, can deal with flooding much more easily. However, there are not many houses of that style in the flood-prone areas of NSW and contemporary housing in Queensland is more often of slab construction.

Below: Fire brigade training session    
Part of the problem for wise land use for development often relates to the tension between developers and local government, particularly if the developer already owns the land in question. There may well be legal consequences if council does challenge a developer, so local government must have legal backing for any judgement. The irony of this situation is that the people who ultimately make the decisions about the land are not those that are affected by those decisions.

These days it is nearly always the case that someone is blamed after a disaster. In the not too distant past, people tended to see a disaster as an act of god or fate. Gradually (and particularly in western societies) that view has changed. We now think we should somehow be able to control the environment and therefore, if we can control it there must be someone responsible for the failure of that control - 'someone' other than 'us' - which shifts the blame onto others and takes responsibility away from 'us'.

Fire fighters and rescue services are always concerned about the lack of preparedness in the community but many people in the community are rarely exposed to hazardous events and when there are large gaps of years between a particulalr type of disaster (for example bushfires, floods), that hazard is not in the mind set of the community, so when disaster does happen it can have a very nasty impact. People don't understand statistics like 'a one in a one hundred year event'.

People need to visualise what it is that they will be exposed to and they can't do that without previous experience.     
It is even harder to get a particular message through about preparation in areas with many possible hazards, especially if other hazards are much more common.

In Queensland, insurance companies do play a role in educating people, especially about seasonal hazards such as cyclones, for example, encouraging them to make sure their insurance is up to date before the cyclone season.

Insurance companies do discount premiums for some mitigating devices like security systems in the case of theft but it is not a widespread feature for other hazards. However, for example, in some areas that are storm prone, using appropriate roofing materials is likely to lead to a reduced premium.

Communities are not just the aggregation of the people within them. Communities consist of individuals, households and organisations, so education is not just about individuals. Dr Cottrell says organisations need to become involved and how they might enable mitigation measures to take place. There are never going to be enough emergency service people to help so assistance really does come down to the communities themselves.

It is also the case that people in the community are often the first responders to a hazard because outsiders often can't get in to help until some time later. Communities are also responsible for their own long term recovery. Indeed, community resilience relies on locals to do the long term rehabilitation, especially when the event disappears from the media.

Animal losses from disasters can be devastating. All manner of animals from native wildlife to livestock and domestic animals can be a huge issue. There is currently work being done both here and in the USA on the how to incorporate companion animals in emergency shelters, something that required a special effort after Cyclone Larry when people turned up with animals for which additional emergency shelters had to be found. Local governments are now trying to incorporate strategies for housing animals into emergency plans.

Dr Cottrell will continue to look at how to plan with communities to undertake mitigation and how to plan for their own recovery. Planning with communities helps them recognise their own responsibilities in hazard reduction.

Text: V.B. March 2009   Images from Alison Cottrell

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